We can confidently predict that ten years from now, comparative literature will be in a state of crisis. It is always in crisis. In 2004 I ventured that nothing has ever defined comparative literature so well as the search for its own definition, a search conducted between and against better-established fields. That continued sense of crisis, however, is one we make for ourselves. External conditions impose another shape on comparative literature’s sense of crisis.

In my 2004 essay I also claimed that because of its lacking a definite subject matter or methodology, Comp Lit was doomed to improvise and to proceed fitfully, occasion by occasion.[1] That concession, however, was meant to flip over into a compensating strength. If comparative literature lacked the solid boundaries of other academic specializations, it could avoid being walled in by them too, and so could welcome unlikely topics, disciplinary collisions, things without a name, art forms without a nation. It could take on such present-day dynamics transcending national and linguistic boundaries as growing inequality, the prevalence of information, and the transformation of institutions under market pressures. It could range into the past to recover the means of production and circulation of knowledge in societies differently organized from our own, while being protected from the provincialism and triumphalism that attend scholars who possess only one language or culture. And it could do these things more readily than disciplines that had been built up to serve a particular nation, language, art form or period.

These are hopes based on a theory of what the field should be doing, or at least a theory of what the field is not hindered from doing by any internal logical obstacle. From its nineteenth-century inception, comparative literature has imagined itself as the locus from which it would be possible to describe and relate the literary productions of all times, peoples and languages.

The modern spirit, that is, rationalism, criticism, liberalism, was founded the same day philology was founded. The founders of the modern spirit are the philologists….

The task of modern scholarship will only be accomplished then when all the facets of humanity, that is, all the nations, have been explored definitely… Then and then only, the reign of criticism will be inaugurated. For criticism will only proceed with perfect surety when the field of universal comparison shall be thrown open to it. Comparison is the great instrument of criticism.[2]

One of our contemporaries who wears without shame the label of “philologist” and has contributed greatly to enlarging “the field of universal comparison” available to scholars in our field is the Sanskritist and literary historian Sheldon Pollock.[3] When I invited him to give the plenary speech at the 2010 ACLA meeting in New Orleans, I expected to hear an account of poetics and literary history from the Indic world, perhaps a short version of the argument of Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men.[4] Instead he gave us a scolding. Although we claim to be limited only by the dialectical conditions of possibility and to welcome works from every imaginable language, time and tradition, Pollock showed, numbers in hand, that the great majority of the doctoral dissertations written in the field and a similar share of the articles in our main journals deal with English, French and German literature between 1800 and 1960. It was wearing a sheepish look that I went on to the next part of the program, the announcement of the annual prizes, which—although they recognized excellent work—only confirmed the modernist and European center of gravity of the ACLA.

There is nothing wrong with writing about canonical authors in easily-accessed languages, as long as you do it well and inventively, but the writers who are the subjects of such research have so much in common with each other and with us that they can yield only a little of the strangeness, of the unexpected, that ambitious comparative projects seek out. The choice to write yet again about Proust and Joyce and Woolf and Kafka, about Freud and Benjamin, signals respect for the layers of meaning yet to be discovered in these authors, but it also suggests that these are the right authors to be investigating and that the others do not repay close scrutiny—an attitude that proves convenient when, in order to test those assumptions, it turns out that one would have to learn not only difficult languages but the rules of a different social order, the conventions and allusions of a different literary tradition, and much else besides.

Sheldon Pollock’s challenge instantiates one of the recurrent crises in comparative literature, the rebuke to our provinciality. The obvious answer—that we need to recruit and reward scholars who are ready to range far afield and dislodge our inveterate modern-European-centered scale of value—sends us to the other type of crisis, where external pressures shape our ends. For many years now, but in North American institutions most acutely since 2008, teaching and research in the humanities have been performed in the face of shrinking budgets and diminishing faculty positions. All language and literature departments today are on short rations, a situation not conducive to bold experimentation. Like a freezing mountaineer, institutions reduce the supply of blood to the extremities (or what they perceive as such) in order to keep the core warm. The consequences are not hard to anticipate. If teaching positions go to reward conventional work on canonical subjects, students will be discouraged from doing work that mixes genres, periods, and languages, or invokes complex theoretical frames. Comparative literature, one function of which has always been to disturb the reigning order of priorities, will then increasingly align itself with the disciplines that have the greatest investment in the current local cultural canon.

 Globalization stories as the new form of modernization narratives end up being about us.

The emphases of the moment in comparative literature seem to me to bend to the same pressures. Approaches to comparative literature that offer a historical narrative of the diffusion of cultural capital (e.g., the novel) from Europe to the less fortunate areas of the world find a hearty welcome, because such globalization stories, although eminently questionable on historical grounds, comfort the biases of our institutions and our public. Globalization stories as the new form of modernization narratives end up being about us.

World literature, taught predominantly in translation, adapts to the new order by lightening up the language requirements and the corresponding cultural information.

Presentism allows us to minimize the fact that the greatest variety of recorded human experience relates to the past. “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, and “There is no alternative,” said Margaret Thatcher. They had excellent reasons for wanting to limit reflection on the possible shapes a state, a culture, an economy, could take. It is our job as scholars to guard against the attitude attributed to a nineteenth-century Oxford don: “I am the master of this college, / And what I don’t know isn’t knowledge.”

The ambition to write literary histories of regions outside Europe, showing their internal organization and development (often instructively different from what is seen in the European example), is one way of resisting the triumphalist urge. I see Pollock, in his The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, as taking a subversive pleasure in using the Sanskrit model to “provincialize” and question the standard-setting function of Roman precedents, all the more in that a reconstituted “Romania” was the not so obscure object of our comparatist ancestor Ernst Robert Curtius’s philological desire.[5] Other literary networks distinct from the Greco-Roman axis and the modern chain of transmission become legible through the recent Cambridge Histories of Chinese and Arabic literature, Ronit Ricci’s Islam Translated, and the vast archive of folklore research, usually ignored by literary comparatists (I merely give examples that come to mind).[6] Specialists have of course for generations written literary histories of their own or other nations, but the comparative perspective frames these histories differently, not foregrounding progress or identity but testing the causality and the cross-cultural plausibility of the links they assert.

Literary histories are, however, histories, and call on the theoretical connectors common to all historical writing: cause and effect, influence, documented relationships, chronology, geography. That which makes a history comparative may be, for the historically-minded, what makes it less of a history. Everyone remembers Borges’s Tlön, where

[t]he concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous. The critics often invent authors: they select two dissimilar works—the Tao Te Ching and the Thousand and One Nights, say—attribute them to the same writer and then determine most scrupulously the psychology of this interesting homme de lettres[7]

Fashioning connections across places and times requires some kind of theory—at the very least, a sensibility. But we often hear that scholarship has entered a post-theoretical age. If this is the temper of the times, it wonderfully corresponds to the imperative of efficiency.

An analogy, most instructive where the parts fail to correspond, may help to show where theory belongs in the articulation of the comparative-literature field. There have always been people studious of their own language: grammarians, philologists, lexicographers. In the field of linguistics today there may be researchers whose interest lies exclusively in one particular language, but to describe the features of that language they must resort to terminology and models from the toolkit of general linguistics. (Naturally, data from specific languages can and always will be used to challenge the applicability of received general theories.) The fairly ready recognition given to general linguistics as a central conceptual clearing-house and domain of theorizing results, for linguistics, in a social organization in which all linguists have something in common (the body of concepts and practices that shape linguistics as a field) and beyond that, most have a more concrete interest in some particular language or language-family that they share with a smaller group of fellow specialists. The construction of the commons (for example transcription systems, nomenclature for grammatical features, and methods of geographical surveying) can be seen in the making if one will only open the volumes of proceedings from the early international linguistics conferences.[8]

Despite the wide circulation of a number of technical terms, rendering them available to any comparatist wishing to describe an unfamiliar work, the domain of comparative literature is not organized in the same way as that of linguistics. Two linguists discussing a language known to only one of them will chiefly be discussing that language as a system (roughly: a grammar), not as a corpus and not as a history, whereas two comparatists discussing a work in a tradition with which only one of them is familiar must talk about the work, about the literary system that produced it, and about the literary and cultural history surrounding it. Moreover the theoretical language that, among linguists, makes possible agreement and disagreement about the data is, for us, a realm of unsettled debate and incompatible assumptions. Although it can be said that, just as every language is an object for general linguistics, so too every literary work is an object for comparative literature (under the aspect that in French is called “littérature générale”); yet working out how unfamiliar works are to be interpreted and valued, with what they are to be compared and along what lines, demands the comparatist’s greatest effort and is inherently controversial.

In such projects, the ongoing “crisis” finds a home. Comparatists should support the members of the profession who are taking the greatest intellectual risks, those who fit together unaccustomed bodies of work in ways not predicted by our ready-to-hand theoretical vocabularies, because it is these and not the ones doing “safe” comparison who will advance inquiry. When adventurous projects and adventurous young people find little support, the discipline is impoverished and loses its way.  

The crisis we make for ourselves—both by venturing into factual realms where we are not at home and by raising theoretical questions we cannot expect to see solved by consensus—is our greatest resource; the crisis outside of us is a matter of resources denied. Comparatists will have to stand up for themselves in the next ten years, first by championing the so-called national language departments without which comparative literature will not survive except as a label for general-education literature-in-translation courses; second by reminding the culture around us of the value there is in being able to synthesize complex and discrepant information that was never designed to be drawn together; and third by demonstrating new ways of making sense exactly where existing canons and methods fail us. That is how we can keep comparative literature’s specific difference open in an increasingly consolidated and shrinking humanities domain. 



[1] “Exquisite Corpses from Fresh Nightmares: Of Memes, Hives and Selfish Genes,” 12-54 in Haun Saussy, ed., Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006).

[2] Ernest Renan, The Future of Science: Ideas of 1848 (L’Avenir de la science: pensées de 1848, 1890; Eng. trans. Albert D. Vandam and C. B. Pitman, 1891), pp. 133, 277. Emphasis in original.

[3] See Sheldon Pollock, “Future Philology: The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 931-961.

[4] Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[5] E. R. Curtius, Latin Literature and the European Middle Ages, tr. Willard Trask (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953). On “provincializing,” see Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[6] See Kang-i Sun Chang and Stephen Owen, eds., The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature (two vols.; Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), A. F. L. Beeston et al., eds., The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature (six vols.; Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1983-2006); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Karl Reichl, Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).

[7] Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” tr. James E. Irby, in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (New York: New Directions, 1964), p. 13. 

[8] E.g., Actes du premier congrès international de linguistes à La Haye, du 10-15 avril 1928 (Leiden: Sithoff, 1928).